Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Sibling Rivalry - Ray Davies: A Complicated Life by Johnny Rogan

Johnny Rogan has written about Ray Davies before. He did a biography of The Kinks back in 1984 (The Kinks: the Sound and the Fury), and then in 1998 one of those CD sized anthologies of record reviews, The Complete Guide to the Music of The Kinks. Rogan is nothing if not thorough. His biography of Van Morrison (No Surrender) is the most in-depth study of the Irish songster available. So much so that it was criticized by Kevin Courtney in The Irish Times, who observed: "For fans of Van Morrison's music, No Surrender might seem somewhat blasphemous, focusing not so much on Van the artist, but on Van the not-very-nice man.” One might say that Rogan has taken the same approach in this vast study of Ray Davies.

He calls it “a complicated life” but in fact it’s two complicated lives Rogan is laying bare here. Ray Davies, rhythm guitarist, songwriter, lead singer of The Kinks and his younger brother Dave, lead guitarist, songwriter, back-up singer of The Kinks. You can’t tell one story without the other. Ray, famously tells a story of his life growing up as the only boy in a family of six sisters. On his solo album The Storyteller he recounts how happy he was, until his mother gave birth to a younger child, another boy, and Ray had to share affections with someone else. “When Dave was born, I felt like a little child of two whose parents suddenly go out and buy a dog,” Ray Davies explains, “Of course a kid gets jealous.” Usually a kid grows out of it but this sibling rivalry grew and grew until today the brothers can barely stand to be in the same city. When asked if there will ever be a Kinks reunion they reply, “It could happen, if people behave,” and “It’s time reality took over!” The first response is Ray, the second Dave. It’s unlikely to happen. Long-time drummer Mick Avory wants it to happen, but he definitely wants to be included, and brother Dave stated recently “I don’t want to see the legacy of The Kinks soured by two miserable old men doing it for the money.” No-one does.

Rogan spends the first two thirds of his 750 pages discussing the life of The Kinks, the band that played Ray’s songs. He paints a picture of a not very pleasant man, who wanted to control everything and everybody around him. Dave virtually invented the raw guitar sound that featured on their first big hit, “You Really Got Me” and then Ray began writing sensitive songs like “Waterloo Sunset” and composing rock operas, plays and TV shows. Dave (and his own songs) were pushed aside much like the other musicians in the band. Mick Avory played drums, and had his own problems with the brothers, once famously throwing a cymbal at Dave’s head, giving him a nasty gash. Pete Quaife was the bassist, who wondered why everyone just couldn’t get along. On the way The Kinks had hit after hit, from the early raw sound right through the music hall inventions of their leader.

The Kinks, and Ray Davies especially, were perhaps the most English of bands. They celebrated the olde England, pastoral, jolly, down at the pub for a singalong. Just the title of their classic album The Village Green Preservation Society gives a sense of the tone of their music. Arthur (or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) tells the story of an ordinary man, a carpet layer who lives in a house he calls “Shangri-La,” he has a garden, a car, a married son Derek with a wife and two kids. It’s an ordinary family based in large part on Davies’ own relatives, right down to Derek and his wife emigrating to Australia. It echoes Ray’s sister Rose and her husband Arthur who moved down under, much to Ray’s dismay in 1964. When the record came out in 1969 it was competing against other concept records like The Who’s Tommy and The Pretty Things’ S.F.Sorrow. Arthur brought The Kinks back to the charts after a long gap. After that…it was a long way down. New record labels, new Kinks, new managers, but the same old arguments.

Ray and Dave Davies.

Rogan charts the ups and downs of the group, and through them Ray’s and Dave’s successes and failures. You get the complete guide to the music, along with details of recording sessions, and of course, the fights. Rogan tells the “tales of drunkenness and cruelty” between the brothers and their mates. The changes in the group, new bass players, drummers, keyboard players, managers, and the constant presence of two boys, men, who didn’t get along. It gets a bit discouraging from time to time, as you read of this iconic group falling apart due to petty jealousies and squabbles. After the breakup of The Kinks, the story focuses more closely on Ray’s solo career, although Dave’s career continues to be mentioned. Ray has dealt with his own life in two different books, the most recent being 2013’s Americana, that’s the place to find details of the New Orleans shooting and more.

Johnny Rogan has been acclaimed as a fine biographer, having written “one of the best biographies ever written” (not this one, but rather his 1997 book The Byrds Timeless Flight Revisited). A Complicated Life has all the features of his other work, tireless research, a critical eye and narrative flair. You come away feeling like you know the Davies boys better, not necessarily in a good way but in a way that makes them, and especially Ray, vivid and complex – and not just pictures on the front page of Rolling Stone.

– David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas, Ontario with his wife. 

1 comment:

  1. If you must read this book at least rent it from your library and don't waste your money on it. Also treat it like a novel for entertainment purposes only not a book of facts and truths, but even as a novel for entertainment it is still trash and belongs in the garbage!